Do-little Congress hardly a misnomer

As Congress prepares to shut down at the end of next week for its traditional five-week summer recess, we thought this would be a good time to reflect on all of its accomplishments so far this year.

Don’t worry, this shouldn’t take long.

Since the start of this year, the 112th Congress has sent 54 pieces of legislation to the president for his signature, putting it on pace to challenge the 88 bills that became law under President Bill Clinton in 1995, the fewest on record since the Congressional Record began to document this number in 1947.

If that weren’t bad enough, nearly one-third of the bills passed this year – 17, to be exact – simply renamed buildings: 14 post offices, a courthouse in Alaska, a wildlife refuge in Mississippi and a border patrol station in Arizona. Oh, and another law corrected the address of an already renamed post office.

This session is shaping up as a carbon copy of last year, when Congress came close to eclipsing the record for futility when it passed 90 bills. Based on an annual salary of $174,000, that means our representatives and senators earned an average of $1,933.33 per approved bill.

Now before anyone accuses us of unfairly picking on the 2011-12 Congress – the one with the 16 percent approval rating, according to Gallup – let’s put their bill-passage numbers into some perspective.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume Congress matches last year’s output of 90 bills, resulting in a two-year approval rate of 180. That would be the lowest performance in at least the past decade by far.

Here’s the breakdown courtesy of Gov.Track.us, a public research organization that tracks federal and state legislation:

106th (1999-2000): 558

107th (2001-02): 350

108th (2003-04): 476

109th (2005-06): 465

110th (2007-08): 442

111th (2009-10): 366

So what gives?

“Neither party has much of an incentive politically to work with the other,” Julian Zelizer, a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University, told a Bloomberg reporter earlier this month. “Nobody will want to do something that will cost their seats in November.”

In fairness, the two parties were able to put aside their differences long enough to tout a few accomplishments.

After nearly four years of temporary extensions, Congress did approve a transportation bill. Ditto for the Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act, which provides $63.6 billion to fund the FAA through 2015. Last fall, you may recall, 42 workers at the Boston Air Traffic Route Traffic Control Center in Nashua were among thousands of FAA employees furloughed for several weeks during a congressional impasse.

Congress also approved the STOCK Act, which bans lawmakers from trading on inside information obtained through their positions; passed legislation that makes it easier for small businesses to raise capital; and reauthorized the Export-Import Bank. It also renewed a handful of existing laws, including one that extended the payroll tax
cut.

Some, no doubt, would argue that less is more; that is, the fewer laws that Congress passes, the better off the nation. And there certainly is some truth to that when applied to specific pieces of legislation.

But at a time when our nation faces so many challenges – budgetary and otherwise – the American people would be much better served by a bipartisan Congress committed to finding solutions, rather than one that’s part of the problem.